Monogamy monotony: the ‘Coalition for Marriage’ is not compatible with modern science

The irrational and sinister campaign against gay marriage | Martin Robbins | Science | guardian.co.uk.

(Disclaimer: this has gone up un-edited and not entirely finished because I need to get back to work. I will probably come back to it and tidy it up a little later, but I wanted to post it anyway, so I hope it’s not too appallingly written.)

It’s refreshing to see someone deconstruct what’s actually part of the rhetoric of this discussion rather than simply add opinion to the debate. I feel like it’s reached the point where opinions – while all important and valid – don’t really cut it any more, because otherwise it descends into a shouting match. We need citations and, much as I hate to say it, I think we need some evidence. This OpEd by Martin Robbins is an interesting dissection of the ‘Coalition for Marriage’ manifesto, and it got me thinking.

I think Robbins misses an obvious point. Lord Carey apparently lays out in a Daily Mail article that ‘the honourable estate of matrimony precedes both the state and the church, and neither of these institutions have the right to redefine it in such a fundamental way’. The thing is… the ‘honourable estate’ really doesn’t ‘precede’ anything.

Here are a choice selection of things that Carey believes (all citations of Carey’s words, unless stated otherwise, are taken from the article above):

‘For thousands of years, the union of one man and one woman has been the bedrock of societies across cultures, all around the world.’

‘The move to legalise same-sex marriage is undemocratic.’

And there’s a picture of two women kissing with Pride flags and bridal veils subtitled ‘Threat: homosexuals in bridal veils kiss in the street. Such communions would jeopardise the stability of our country’.

So marriage as one man and one woman, according to Carey, is universal, fundamental to the stability of society, and democratically-approved. Well, firstly, here is no normative state of monogamy in human society, and there are no normative patterns of sexual selection across the animal kingdom. For one thing, we’ve all heard of the ‘gay’ penguins and the ‘lesbian’ monkeys. (I’d like to point out at this juncture that I’m not able to spend as long as I’d like on this blog post, so I haven’t thoroughly read the two articles above; I selected two from the first page of Google. Poor journalistic practise, but I’m not a journalist and I am on a break from writing my Masters’ papers.) For another, Richard Dawkins notes that across all of life, ‘most species are either polygynous or monogamous, presumably depending on their different economic situations’ (Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor’s Tale (London: Orion, 2004), p. 214.). If we were to look for primates for some kind of support of our own sexual selective preferences, we’d be stuffed: ‘Among our close relatives, gorillas have a harem-based polygynous breeding system and gibbons are faithfully monogamous. […] Chimpanzees are more indiscriminately promiscuous’ (Dawkins, Ancestor’s, p. 214). No fundamental patterns there. Perhaps more directly relevant to countering Carey’s claim, Dawkins also writes of G. P. Murdock’s work the Ethnographic Atlas, which ‘lists particulars of of 849 human societies, surveyed all over the world’ (Dawkins, Ancestor’s, p. 215). What does this survey show about marriage?

‘Of those 849 societies, 137 (about 16 per cent) are monogamous, four (less than one per cent) are polyandrous, and a massive 83 per cent (708) are polygynous’ (Dawkins, Ancestor’s, p. 215). So it appears that if there is a ‘normative’ pattern, it’s not one that supports Lord Carey’s view that ‘For thousands of years, the union of one man and one woman has been the bedrock of societies across cultures, all around the world.’ I have to cede that this is, technically, true. It’s been the bedrock of 16% of societies. But it is dwarfed, drowned, swallowed as a dainty tit-bit by the amount of societies that favour polgynous relationships over monogamous ones.

So Carey’s emotive rhetoric has absolutely no logical, empirical, biological nor anthropological grounding. By suggesting it is prior to church and state, Lord Carey seems to believe that the state of marriage as one man and one woman is somehow inalienable, will prove self-supporting if the scaffolding of church and state are taken away. But the only things defining marriage as marriage are the church and the state themselves.

If things like ‘rights’ are not inalienable – and they’re not; they have to be recognised and enforced by a state or a society, but the majority of states agree on them, which is why we’re so outraged when they’re violated – then marriage certainly isn’t inalienable, especially not when we know perfectly well that there are plenty of alternative models to marriage that are enshrined in the laws and customs of 83% of the world’s societies.

Another thing that bothers me about Carey’s perspective is that by citing ‘the church’ Lord Carey seems to be invoking a religious group as some kind of naturalised universal authority. In fact, he’s aligning it with the power of the state – but by arguing that if you took it away, marriage would still stand on its own, he seems to be alluding to the fact that not all religious groups have the same views of marriage. In fact, by using ‘the church’, small c, he is glossing over the fact that he means the Church: the Christian and/or Catholic and/or Orthodox Church. The organised, ‘if you don’t believe Jesus Christ was the son of God then you’re not one of us’ Church, even with all the splinter groups that don’t hold with the Anglican Communion or the Rome thing. That means that he is disregarding, say, ‘the synagogue’, ‘the mosque’, or ‘the temple’ of the world’s other major religions – which, even with non-capitals, to a citizen of a country where that form of worship is not the norm, the comparison reveals the fundamentally exclusive nature of Carey’s claim, and therefore how illogical it is to claim that matrimony both precedes and somehow stands apart from state and religion. His view is completely centre-blind, mapping the false universals of his own culture onto the rest of the world, which sounds like a post-colonial issue to me.

That might seem to be getting a little far from gay marriage. Well, perhaps it is; but then, perhaps second-wave white feminists should have understood that they didn’t truly comprehend the experience of black feminists (the wonderful bell hooks published a lot of work on this). Peter Tatchell makes the interesting point that there is discrimination both ways in under British law, to homosexuals and heterosexuals alike, depending of course on your perspective. He also comments that if this exact issue were mapped onto a racial divide rather than one of sexuality, the discrimination becomes shockingly clear.

Incidentally, Carey also thinks that ‘for many centuries, Britain has known much more stability than most other nations on Earth, and marriage has been essential to our national welfare.’ Wait, wait, I’m sorry. Carey, did you learn about Henry VIII at school? How loudly can you say ‘the Reformation that caused 150 years of civil war was based entirely on a definition of marriage deemed inadequate by one particular king’? Because I can say it pretty loud. In 1529, Henry VIII began charging people with high treason for listening to the Pope above the King, which is the date I’m picking for the start of the Reformation and the century and a half of civil wars that followed it. Yeah, English history likes to give them all different names – ‘the Reformation’, the ‘Catholic Restoration’, the ‘Marian persecutions’, ‘the English Civil War’ – as if there was only one civil war. It was all part of the same problem, and the sequence of wars ended in 1688, in the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’, which incidentally outlawed Roman Catholicism for a few hundred years. All of it, all of the sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants, even the bombs found in Northern Ireland last week, is pretty damning evidence for the idea that marriage is at the heart of ‘our national welfare’.

(Also, I’m not trying to say that Henry VIII redefining marriage was a bad thing because it caused all this, because it’s not. Redefining marriage is A-OK. People taking religion too seriously is what caused all this. But I’ll get on to religion another time.)

So the Coalition for Marriage starts off to deny that gay people getting married is the same as straight people getting married, but along the way, Lord Carey’s ignorance of other cultures and modern science reveals that his view of marriage is dependent wholly on a church and state that, if you look at the evidence, certainly does have the ‘right’ to redefine it as there are no fundamental aspects to marriage that agree with Carey’s view. He also comes across as a little bit racist, because 83% of the world don’t want what he wants and he’s dismissed their ideas as not compatible with ‘the honourable state of matrimony’. Gay marriage won’t jeopardise the stability of the country, because the stability of the country isn’t based on marriage. Gay marriage doesn’t violate any kind of fundamental or inalienable social norm about marriage, because there is no norm. And monogamous marriage is neither precedent to church and state, nor independent of them.

I’m running out of steam, partially because this has turned into a far longer article than I anticipated but mainly I have to get back to writing my MA papers. This is an unedited and imperfect version that doesn’t particularly come to a conclusion (my apologies) but I want to post it anyway, because otherwise I worry I’ll get into endless rounds of edits and that will take more time and people still won’t have seen it and you’ll all believe I spent the lunchtime doing no work.

Incidentally, I can’t in all conscience mention the ‘Coalition for Marriage’ without mentioning the group it is opposing. The Coalition for Equal Marriage is a petition with the view that ‘I support the right of two people in love to get married, regardless of gender. It’s only fair.’ I definitely do.